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New Jack Activists 

The Coalition for Educational Justice is fighting generations of neglect with a secret weapon — students

Thursday, Jul 8 2004
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Photo by Ted Soqui

Crenshaw High senior Frances Martin is hoarse from shouting, but the 17-year-old is composed as she takes the microphone to decry the Los Angeles Unified School District’s almost pathological habit of spending money everywhere but where it’s needed the most — in the classroom. “We’ve got to cut out the middleman,” she declares with as much certainty as any seasoned activist, dozens of whom are in the crowd of protesters before her. A sea of red-shirted teachers representing the United Teachers union, with a contingent of blue-shirted kids and adults from the Coalition for Eductional Justice sprinkled among them, cheers raucously.

The largely inner-city students who form the unlikely heart and backbone of the CEJ have joined this June rally in front of the district’s downtown headquarters because they are incensed about the sorry state of affairs in their schools and about the bureaucrats’ endless inability to do anything about them.

Three CEJ students — Marquise Williams, Channing Martinez and Jessica Reese — take turns with a megaphone: “I don’t know, but I’ve been told/All our schools are mighty old/Give us teachers, give us books/Get those recruiters off our hooks!”

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Other students wave signs that echo the sentiments; one bangs a drum constructed of rope and an upturned, empty water bottle. Marquise and Jessica have the word “media” written on yellow tape across their backs. This is a group determined to be heard, and seen.

Frances continues. “But you know,” she says, as if the thought suddenly strikes her, “we have other issues too. Like the militarization of our schools. Like overcrowding. And change needs to happen now. Not later, but now. So call your local school board member . . .” She is drowned out by more cheers and approving whistles. A middle-aged black woman in a red union shirt shouts, “Hurrah for the students!” Frances pumps her fist above her head and smiles almost sweetly before taking a chair.

The CEJ is, to put it mildly, ambitious. It wants every problem in the dizzying pantheon of public-school problems — from overcrowded classes to decrepit book stocks — corrected, but it’s content to do things a bit at a time. The magnitude of the goal and the work required to achieve it are such that most students, while they often agree with the CEJ, do not get involved. “My friends have no idea what this is about,” remarks Travon Hodge, a junior at Crenshaw High who was a key organizer of CEJ’s participation in this rally. “But I understand. I used to be that way.”

Forget football — the latest team sport in the hood is the Coalition for Educational Justice, one of the most far-reaching attempts to equalize public education in L.A. since mandatory busing was tried and burned in the 1970s. What distinguishes the CEJ from other, similar efforts is the central role of students. Not just any students; those who have jump-started the CEJ and given it life are the very black and Latino working-class kids in the worst-performing schools who are secretly written off by many in the education community as uneducable. It is this gray population that is now realizing that their own education up to this point has very likely been insufficient, but that they must try to change its course anyway. The most disadvantaged kids, who have long been the most hapless characters in the titanic tragedy of failing public schools, are learning how to effectively confront bigwig superintendents and board members with grievances, explain the history and rationale of each one, and lay out timelines to address them.

 

It is several weeks before the aforementioned June rally, and Travon is co-chairing a CEJ meeting at Dorsey High School with his friend Channing, a 16-year-old junior who, like Travon, goes to nearby Crenshaw. Both are on the shy side and, for the last year or so, have been devoted to pursuits that lack the traditional appeal or ego stroke of other afterschool activities, like sports or dance practice. This get-together is unglamorous that way, which makes it all the more remarkable that Travon is here. He frankly doesn’t look like a student who’d be interested in hanging around campus any longer than he has to: He’s thin, languid, dark-skinned, dressed in a white T-shirt and voluminous blue jeans that are belted somewhere between his knees and his waist. He wears a thick silver chain around his neck that gleams in the bright afternoon sun. He has neatly plaited cornrows, a faux-diamond stud in each ear and mild, heavy-lidded eyes that make him look vaguely like a young Snoop Dogg.

But Travon has bigger things on his mind than the presiding dean of gangsta rap; in a classroom he bends over the day’s agenda and reads the items aloud carefully, with the manner of a new Boy Scout ushering an old woman across a busy street. Channing nods slightly in approval, as he tends to do whenever Travon has the floor. Channing is slender, almost elfin, with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a laconic air that masks a seriousness about his involvement with the Coalition for Educational Justice. He is quick with a wry smile or a joke, but when it comes to the CEJ, he is always looking to see that everyone else is serious too, especially his friend Travon.

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